Egyptian Feminist Author Mona Eltahawy Explains Why Feminism Should Not Be A Threat To Men

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One of our favorite authors is Egyptian feminist activist Mona Eltahawy, whose book ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ calls for a powerful sexual revolution in the Middle East. Sound a little scandalous? You bet it is, and for good reason. Mona believes that dissecting and changing the framework for sexuality in a region where religion and patriarchal control trumps all is going to be a game-changer for women’s rights.

She made an appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival in India recently, where she spoke about her passion for women’s rights in her home country of Egypt as well as other countries in the Middle East. The discussion, which also included Laila Khalili, an Iranian academician who specializes in the politics of the middle-east at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, was framed around the question of whether feminism is a social or political movement, and what impact it can have in politics.

Mona adamantly believes feminism is a political movement and points out the ways in which it has played a role in major uprisings, including the most recent Arab Spring where Egypt became a focal point during 2011 and 2012.

“I say that what we’re fighting against, in the middle east and north Africa, is a trifecta of misogyny – the state, represented by [ex-president Hosni] Mubarak in the palace, the street, represented by Mubarak on the street corner, and the home, represented by Mubarak in the home,” she said.

Hosni Mubarak was the longest-running Egyptian president, until he was forced to step down in 2011 during the uprising. With allegations of corruption and controversially being cleared by Egyptian courts of being responsible for the killings of hundreds of protesters during 2011, his reputation of clamping down on democracy and free speech angered many activists and humanitarians in the country.

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Both Mona and Laila are quick to point out how women played a crucial role not just in Egypt, but in many of the Arab Spring uprisings that have drastically shifted cultural and political ideals in the middle east.

“What we saw was a huge presence of women. For example in the Egyptian revolution you saw women, in the early stages of the Syrian uprising before you had the armed groups…women had an enormous presence as writers, intellectuals, artists, activists, and in other instances women had a huge impact which is not being written about such as Yemen, which is quite a conservative place, some of the most famous demonstrations were of women. In fact the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen had it’s most visible figure being a woman who ended up getting a Nobel Prize. All of these women would consider themselves feminists,” she said.

With regard to the argument that both men and women are oppressed in the middle east and therefore it should be spoken about more generally, Mona says there are some nuances within that which should be addressed.

“They say the state oppresses everyone, men and women, so really no one is free. Why are you talking about women’s freedom? I say to them, yes the state oppresses men and women, but the state the street and the home together oppress women specifically, using a toxic mix of religion and culture,” she points out.

It’s a concept that even women in America and around the developed world can identify with, which we’ll get to in a minute.

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The way women are able to fight back against this dangerous trifecta is by electing more women to parliament using quotas, which means they are able to create legislation that has an impact on everybody. Feminist activists are taking to the streets in order to fight against the high numbers of street harassment and sexual abuse.

“In the run up to the revolution and since the revolution, we’ve seen a plethora of women’s groups who go out onto the streets and directly challenge this idea that a man is entitled to public space and is entitled to a woman’s body,” she said.

Mona also says the “Mubarak in the home” which oppresses women is an important fight for what it imposes on women in private.

“That is the dictator who imposes a curfew just on girls and women. That is the dictator that promotes and propagates harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation, and that’s the dictator that uses religion to make women obey him and to suit his advantages,” she explained.

In the US, while we thankfully enjoy freedom of religion and women are not oppressed in the same way, it would be foolish of us to think we aren’t in danger of it happening. This presidential election, nearly all of the Republican candidates, especially the top 3, are openly campaigning on a platform of religious conservatism which seeks to overturn gay marriage, make abortion illegal, and restrict a woman’s access to reproductive healthcare. If we are not vigilant in raising our voices as women and standing against the rhetoric that women should not have a right to choose how to live their lives, then we could very well face a future that looks more like the middle east than a beacon of freedom as America is typically known as.

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Both Laila and Mona talk of the incredible importance of women playing a huge role in social and cultural revolution, because if they don’t, as history has shown time and time again, they are easily left behind, continually oppressed, and marginalized. Sadly, women aren’t naturally a major part of what is being fought against so in order to make it known, female activists must take part in uprisings and changes. The same goes for women in the west. We cannot assume someon else will take up the cause, or campaign for equal rights. We all have our part to play.

Although feminism can seem like such a problematic or controversial term today, it is still very needed in different ways around the world. Mona has the best explanation for why she thinks everyone should be a feminist, and also the reasoning behind certain fears of this movement.

“For me the definition of feminism is ultimately equality and justice. Many people falsely believe that feminism means women will be on the top and men will be on the bottom because they’re using the patriarchal model. Patriarchy promotes men on top and women on the bottom, this is not what I want. Unfortunately, because of patriarchy and misogyny, men can only think of movements that want to liberate women as something that will hurt them. I want to see equality and justice for everyone,” she said.

It’s the perfect jumping off point in terms of challenging the voices that seek to diminish the vital work of feminists today, where domestic violence, rape, street harassment, women in positions of power, the war on women’s bodies and sexual choices have become the center of what they are fighting for.

While it is easy to get caught up in our own bubbles and only see the issues in front of us, listening to both Mona and Laila talk about how feminists in other parts of the world are standing up for equal rights is both fascinating and eye-opening.

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